Historically, it was believed that by December migrant woodcock would have reached their particular wintering region and after that only hard, cold weather would induce them to shift. Those of us who are actively monitoring woodcock in our areas are aware that several shifts take place during the season. Woodcock do not simply stay put, but move to find new feeding grounds. Even in periods of open weather, with clear and dry conditions, the birds suddenly disappear. In the past few seasons, the early weeks of the New Year have seen stable numbers of woodcock, but we have seen significant increases in the dying days of the season. In February 2007, we saw very late migrations when huge numbers of woodcock arrived in Ireland in February. On my patch, numbers fluctuate from week to week as the birds move and others arrive.
The weather could not have been better for woodcock shooting or for migration in the week leading up to Christmas. Almost everywhere in the UK we experienced frosty, clear days and what wind there was came from an easterly direction. This resulted in some regional shifts, and by Boxing Day readers were reporting encounters with thin and tired woodcock. By the end of the first week of this month, high densities of woodcock were being found right across the country. I am reliably informed there have been huge numbers of woodcock in the south west of England as a result of normal migration. In the past, a severe cold snap elsewhere in the UK would have ensured a mass migration into Cornwall. This year, a staggering number of birds have overwintered in the south west as the result of an excellent breeding season.
In early December 2007, Cock Robin in County Clare reported horrendous conditions, very wet, but woodcock plentiful. Despite atrocious conditions, he also added this is the best season, for this time of year so far, for many years. These also are the comments Im getting from other shooters in the south west of Ireland. Up in the Midlands of Ireland, John Bourke shared these sentiments: great number of woodcock about here great sport! In Northern Ireland, Steven Quinn, of the Enler Game Club, declared that numbers had increased from late November with a good mixture of adults and juveniles in the bag. He also suggested that numbers were much higher than last year. However, by 15 December, the weather was taking its toll on activities: small numbers seen recently probably due to the atrocious weather sleet, snow and driving wind the birds have left the area for the moment. In the week leading up to Christmas the weather improved and so did the sport. Down in the Burren region, Dave Egan, Noel ODonoghue and Ollie Fitzhugh were enjoying good sport: flushed 35 to 40 birds on both 22 and 23 December. Shot 21 in total.
In County Mayo, Ray Devine was also happy with numbers: a lot of woodcock around but the weather has been a problem, very wet and mild. In January, Cock Robin contacted me: in the land of all things green, the weather has been hellish with driving wind and rain. This has not deterred the woodcock as they are putting in appearances in huge numbers in North Clare. Guns are flushing up to 50 birds a day. Tony Kiernan, of the Irish Woodcock Club, passed judgement on the season thus far: a lot of woodcock came on the October full moon and we had better November shooting. There was another fall on the November moon and this is proving to be the best season ever. Dave Egans sport clearly picked up over the Christmas period, as he reported 45 shot for five days of hunting: I was happy to see the wind change to the east, it was a change to have it dry and more birds came our way. By 2 January, Tony Kiernan had found time to analyse his records for the season and suggested that the number of woodcock he had seen in the 2007/08 season so far was up 44 per cent on the previous six-year average. However, by 7 January, Tony felt that numbers had thinned somewhat: They seem to have moved on [north-west Ireland]. We have had recent snow and frost but this follows a familiar pattern. I always feel the birds are scarce in the first seven or so days of January, but our coverts fill up again for the last three weeks of the season.
Much like the curates egg, sport was good in places and mediocre in others. On 16 December, STs chef Mark Hinge reported: the beauties are flooding into south-east Wales. We have seen individuals and groups passing at dusk. Hugh Mort, in south Wales, had two witnesses to his right-and-left just before Christmas. By 19 December, a somewhat bemused Louie ODonovan admitted: I am probably stating the obvious but there are woodcock everywhere. We are seeing them even on the big pheasant drives locally [mid-Wales]. Lots of shooters are reporting large numbers. In south-west Wales, Mike Sherman and his sons, Maverick and Connor, enjoyed some decent woodcock shooting: out on the 20th, flushed 40-plus and shot 15 for four Guns. Maverick shot eight. On Boxing Day, four Guns out for three hours flushed 30 birds for seven shot. Connor shot three. On Boxing Day, I was out with Owen Williams, and what a day we had. We finished the day with 11 for 26 seen. We deliberately choose the steep banks so that the bottom Gun on the lower slope had some really testing high woodcock. Memorable stuff you dont often hear woodcock hitting the floor with a thump.
Summing up their sporting activities over the festive period, the Camddwr Shoot in mid-Wales reported: woodcock remain in large numbers. Less so on our more noted woodcock drives but too much disturbance has moved them on. Already it has been a record season for them. We have exceeded our best year already, to 29 December. Boxing Day was an excellent walked-up day with 12 woodcock, 12 snipe and 36 pheasants. On 29 December, we had a woodcock-only day, flushed 60-plus and accounted for 26. The woodcock have been in excellent condition large plump birds. Williams, Williams, Jones and Williams Junior were also out on Boxing Day and shared a really good roughshooters bag of five woodcock, five pheasants, 11 rabbits, one squirrel and a crow. By 4 January, Louie ODonovan had found time to enjoy his shooting: first really serious day. Shooting the high tops with Lee Jones saw 30-plus and shot eight. Second day down in Powys, saw 20, shot eight. On 5 January, I flushed 31 woodcock. Sixteen of these from a patch of cover no bigger than a tennis court. They were getting up everywhere, but I had to let many go as they were flushed within feet of me. Exciting stuff. I shot five, which is not bad for one man, one dog and two hours.
The Okehampton Woodcock Club has continued to enjoy a very successful woodcock season. Shoot captain Barry Fudge, who keeps detailed and accurate records, supplied the following updates: 5 December four real Guns and two walking wounded steady sport saw 27 woodcock and we managed five plus three snipe and four pigeon. Very heavy rain the previous night made scenting conditions poor. 12 December nine members and nine guests, saw 45 for the day, shot 12 woodcock, one jay, one magpie, one jackdaw and four pigeon. A good honest days sport with some good lads Devon Wildfowlers and guests who knew how to beat and shoot. Boxing Day saw 50, managed 13 woodcock, one snipe, one jay and a pigeon. Still plenty of woodcock about. In Derbyshire, Charlie Hendon reported: so far this season, I have seen 87 on my patch. Down in Dorset, Mike Appleby remains upbeat: we are still seeing woodcock on most drives, the birds that have been shot are a mixture of young and mature birds, all of which are in good condition. Last night, I stood on a favourite ride and counted 11 travelling the same direction going out to feed. A fantastic sight.
The general picture in Scotland is very positive and numbers are holding up well. A jubilant Michael MacKenzie concluded last years shooting with two days on 17 and 18 December: out with four Guns from Speyside. We managed to bump into a few woodcock. Shot 20 over the two days with the chance of three right-and-lefts. Goose guide John Lewis, based near Peterhead, had also been out after woodcock: Ive seen quite a few in the past couple of days, not as many as I would expect. I expect to do much better in January, when I have some dedicated woodcock shooting parties coming to stay. My Irish goose shooting clients tell me there are plenty of woodcock in Donegal, Fermanagh and Antrim. Back out on 4 January at Eilean Iarmain on the Isle of Skye, headkeeper Michael Mackenzie declared: Not that many seen today. Windy, bitterly cold with sleet showers. Saw 33 and shot eight. Out again on 5 January, Michael reported: gales forecast dropped away, but the rain continued. Temperature up by 10˚C. Saw 45 for 14 shot. Some were not in the best condition.
Greece is also having an exceptional woodcock year. Tom Mpatselas confirmed: a very good season for woodcock. The best in the past seven years. There are many birds (20 December) and my contacts report more arrivals this week. The majority are reddish in colour. In early December, Dr Jean Paul Boidot, in Brittany, expressed concern that the second wave of migration had stalled. By Christmas time his fears had been put to rest: Lots of birds now. A very good season in France and throughout Europe. The European Federation of Woodcock Hunting Clubs supplying good reports on woodcock numbers. On Saturday 5 January we had high numbers of woodcock flushed.
Professor Trotman asks that readers who are ageing their birds send details to him via ST. Also, if any reader has shot a ringed woodcock this season, please send the ring details to him via ST.